/ Published November 17, 2010
The War That Never Ends: New Perspectives on the Vietnam War edited by David L. Anderson and Johns Ernst. University Press of Kentucky, 2007, 368 pp.
The Johnson administration’s 1965 decision to commit US ground combat troops to the defense of South Vietnam was a monumental strategic blunder on par with the Truman administration’s 1950 decision to cross the 38th Parallel and attempt to reunify Korea by force and the Bush administration’s 2003 decision to invade Iraq. All three resulted in unnecessary wars in which almost 100,000 Americans have died (the count continues in Iraq). Whereas the Korean War has been largely forgotten, the Vietnam War continues to be waged among the generation of Americans who fought and witnessed it. Its historiography remains a battleground. Historians remain divided on such fundamental issues as the nature of the conflict—a civil war, insurgency, conventional military fight, war of national liberation, international communist aggression, or all of the above?—and why the United States lost: was defeat self-inflicted or imposed by an enemy in possession of superior will and strategy?
The War That Never Ends is thus appropriately titled. Edited by Vietnam War historians David Anderson (California State University) and John Ernst (Morehead State University), the book consists of 16 essays covering a wide variety of war-related subjects. They include Walter LeFeber’s “The United States and Vietnam: The Enemies,” Robert K. Brigham’s “Ho Chi Minh, Confucianism, and Marxism,” Ronald B. Frankum Jr.’s “Vietnam During the Rule of Ngo Dinh Diem, 1954–63,” Robert Topmiller’s “The Buddhist Antiwar Movement,” Robert Buzzanco’s “Military Dissent and the Legacy of the Vietnam War,” Terry H. Anderson’s “Vietnam is Here: The Antiwar Movement,” Clarence R. Wyatt’s “The Media and the Vietnam War,” Kyle Longley’s “Congress and the Vietnam War: Senate Doves and their Impact on the War,” and George C. Herring’s “The War That Never Seems to Go Away.”
These are hardly new topics, but the authors for the most part do bring new perspectives to them. Brigham, for example, argues that, contrary to conventional wisdom, Vietnam’s Confucian tradition had very little to do with Ho Chi Minh’s popular appeal in the countryside, because Vietnam’s peasantry was ignorant of Confucianism as a coherent and structured doctrine. On the contrary, it was the communists’ unassailable nationalist credentials and promised social programs, especially land reform, that excited peasant support for revolution.
For another example, Buzzanco challenges the common notion that the US military expected an easy victory in Vietnam. From the very beginning, he says, “American military leaders . . . consistently reported that the war was not going well, that the ally, the ‘South’ Vietnamese, had serious problems, and that the enemy, the National Liberation Front and its armed units, was formidable and maintained the initiative.” It was only when the Joint Chiefs of Staff recognized that the White House was determined to save South Vietnam, even if it meant war, did they recommend the direct injection of US combat forces, and even then, military leaders cautioned that the war would be long and costly. Yet when it became clear by 1967–68 that the war was stalemated with the increasing possibility of a US defeat, military leaders “began to plant the idea that they had to fight with ‘one hand tied behind their backs’,” which subsequently became “a staple of postwar conservative revisionism regarding the war.”
A third example is Wyatt’s assessment of the influence of the media on public opinion. He demolishes the myth that individual journalists and entire news organizations deliberately distorted news of the war to suit their own political biases. Biases there were, but they were largely institutional, not ideological. Moreover, journalists like Neil Sheehan, David Halberstam, and Peter Arnett went to Vietnam as firm supporters of the US commitment there but became disillusioned by official incompetence and government lying and self-delusion about the progress of the war. In the final analysis it was not the “liberal” media that turned the American electorate against the American war in Vietnam (which had been initiated, after all, by a liberal democratic administration and fully supported on the editorial pages of the New York Times and Washington Post), but rather the government’s conduct of the war and the military’s failure to win it.
Herring’s essay is perhaps the most insightful. “Why,” he asks, “has a conflict that ended for the United States over a quarter of century ago continued to trouble us in so many ways? Why is Vietnam the war that never seems to go away?” To be sure, it was a war for which neither the Pentagon nor American society was prepared to fight; then, as now, America’s strategic culture was hostile to the requirements of success against committed enemies waging protracted irregular warfare. To be sure, we drastically underestimated the strength and determination of the Vietnamese communists. For Herring, however, the real reason “why the war has caused us so much pain and why its influence has lingered” is that “it caused us as a nation to confront a set of beliefs about ourselves that forms a basic part of the American character.” First among those beliefs was the “myth of American exceptionalism,” which postulates a noble, benevolent, and generous America incapable of base means and motives in dealing with others. Second was an ingrained sympathy for the underdog, which ran afoul of a war that cast the United States as the brutal Goliath raining death and destruction upon the Vietnamese David. Third, and perhaps most important of all, was a long history of victorious wars. “Americans were so accustomed to success that they had come to take it for granted. Failure came hard, especially in the case of Vietnam, where our armies were never defeated and were frustrated by a small, backward, and, perhaps worse, Oriental enemy.” (The obvious explanation for defeat: victory was self-denied via civilian meddling with military operations, a treasonous press, and a defeatist antiwar movement.)
The War That Never Ends is a useful contribution to the continuing avalanche of books on the most controversial war in American history, at least so far (the jury remains out on the disastrous Iraq War).
Jeffrey Record, PhD
Air War College
"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."